Ashes and Prostrations

For the global Church, this week is one of beginnings. Christians of the West bid farewell to Alleluia and enroll, once again, in the order of penitents through the imposition of ashes. Pastors compose messages that encourage the people to return to life in God. Many will mark their return through the sacrament of confession.

Lent among Byzantine Christians of the East looks and sounds different. We do not observe Ash Wednesday; it has never been a part of our tradition. We do not shelve Alleluia. In fact, we sing it more often during Lent. Lent begins on Clean Monday.

In parish practice, Lent begins during Vespers on Sunday evening. The colors change from gold to purple during the slow chanting of the prayer, “Grant us, o Lord, to keep this night without sin.” The rest of the evening service follows the Lenten variant of Vespers.

The Rite of Forgiveness

A solemn rite of forgiveness ends the service. Essentially, this rite begins Lent. it sets the tone for Lent and defines it.

The Orthodox blogosphere will be eager to describe the proper order for the rite of forgiveness. They mean well, but reading accounts of this rite can be misleading, because there is a great deal of diversity of practice among parishes.

In its full form, the rite of forgiveness concludes Vespers on Sunday evening. The pastor asks the people to forgive him of his sins, and makes a full prostration before them – all the way to the ground. The people respond, “God forgives! Forgive us, father!” And they perform a full prostration before him.

In the full version of the rite, each participant exchanges forgiveness with the others in the assembly, with prostrations and completed with the exchange of the kiss of peace. It is common for circles of people exchanging forgiveness with one another to form in these parishes.

Many people find the rite to be cathartic, a cleansing of the soul. But it can be hard for others, for reasons ranging from introvertism to the moral paradox of demanding the victimized to ask for the forgiveness of others.

[This last point about expecting victims to ask forgiveness – on their knees – deserves much more analysis. Another time, I promise].

The choir sings during the forgiveness rite, and the repertoire varies. Some sing Paschal hymns, others sing the greatest hits of Lent. The Paschal hymns are proleptic, a ritual of singing the destiny of Lent – Pascha – into existence. In this sense, the music matches the ritual, as the most intimate greeting of Pascha is the exchange of greetings: “Christ is Risen! Truly, he is Risen!” followed by three kisses. Reconciliation and peace are the goals: one must rehearse them to have a chance of receiving this blessed peace.

Some parishes observe abbreviated rites that begin Lent, including a simply exchange of the rite of forgiveness between pastor and people at the end of the Liturgy. Rigid liturgical uniformity is alien to Byzantine Christianity. The point is that Lent begins with forgiveness, no matter how the parishes ritualizes the occasion.

What, then, does it mean?

Can we select from the buffet of Lenten definitions and feature on of them here? Is all of this baptismal? Penitential? Cathartic? Solemn? Is Lent a “bright sadness”?

All of these answers are correct, just not on their own. I think that Lent is God’s gift, a season given to us to make us well again. Or to put it another way, one of the many gifts God graciously bestows on humankind for the healing of the world.

The first phrase of a hymn from Forgiveness Vespers says it well: “Let us begin the fast with joy!”  I can’t think of a better way to begin. Forgive me, a sinner!



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